There has always been talk about secession in this country by those variously disgruntled on both the right and left, but, since the last presidential election, which revealed deep-seated divisions in American society over a variety of fundamental issues, that talk has grown exponentially. Such talk is not likely to lead to a dissolution of this country into separate states or regions, but that is by no means inconceivable. The issue should be taken seriously and examined carefully.
The first question is whether secession is legal—whether the Constitution can be read, and history cited, as permitting (or at least not forbidding) a state to declare its independence from the Union. Scholars have come down on both sides of this issue, but that fact alone suggests that there is a legitimate argument to be made. To put it simply: The Tenth Amendment reserves powers not delegated to the United States to the states or the people, so states may act unless specifically prohibited. The Constitution in fact says nothing about secession, and, as Southern states were seceding, Congress considered an amendment forbidding secession—a strong indication that secession is permissible. Three of the original thirteen states (Rhode Island, New York, and Virginia) kept an explicit right to secede when they joined the Union, and, since that was never challenged or questioned, it must be a right that all states enjoy. In the 19th century, before South Carolina began the bandwagon of secession in 1860, seven states (Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Vermont) enacted acts of nullification—refusing to recognize some or all of the powers of the federal government—without any retaliation by Washington.
Of course, Lincoln’s government acted as if secession were illegal and unconstitutional, and its victory established the practical case that states will be punished if they try to secede, and the Constitution is irrelevant. It did not establish a legal case, however, and the legal (not to mention moral) argument for the right to secede remains strong—so strong that, even if it were denied in the U.S. courts, it would likely be defended in the court of international opinion by many of the world’s nations, including those in the European Union and those that have recently exercised that right (in the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, for example). And that might make it difficult for the federal government to act against a state that has voted for secession, particularly if there were no overriding moral issues (e.g., slavery) and the state proved agreeable to negotiation over federal property and assets within its boundaries.
A second question arises over whether the U.S. government could allow a state (or a group of states) to secede, if this action threatened its sovereignty and power over the remaining states. The federal government might not want to let California go, for fear that Cascadia (Oregon and Washington) and New England (and who knows how many disgruntled others?) would follow suit. If it still had the military means and the loyalty of the remaining troops, it might be expected to contrive a way (a Gulf of Tonkin or WMD excuse) to justify an invasion.
And yet, it is hard to believe that Washington would actually command its troops to mow down Los Angelenos and San Franciscans the way they do the civilians of Fallujah and Najaf, or withstand the barrage of criticism, domestic and international, if it did. Such an act would more likely propel additional secessions than gain support. It is harder still to think that the troops would actually carry out such an order, killing (ex-)Americans on (ex-)American territory. And if the troops did actually succeed in conquering and occupying an independent state, the population would be virtually uncontrollable: If it is not possible to win the hearts and minds of Vietnamese and Iraqis by invasion, think how much less possible it would be to win over people who had voted for secession with the full knowledge that it might lead to war.
It is not fantastic, then, to imagine that, instead of a futile war, Washington would be willing to negotiate a settlement in the hopes that, by giving concessions on, say, autonomy and self-regulation and by demonstrating the extent of federal dollars lost, it could win a secessionist state back into the Union. In some cases, that might well happen, and, if it failed, it would at least show a government intelligent and confident enough to act as a future ally rather than a marauding warmonger. And as an ally, it might be able to establish diplomatic and trade ties that would allow it to continue using such resources and talents of the new state as it wanted, perhaps even the bases it had previously used—with the additional benefit of no longer having to maintain federal offices, regulators, highways, parks, dams, and such, and even presumably with a negotiated fee in compensation for these lost assets.
There is another strategy that a federal government determined to quash secession might take that involves no troops, no war—nothing but a few phone calls. Washington might put pressure on large chain operations—Wal-Mart, Target, McDonald’s, General Motors, Gannett, etc.—to cease doing business in the secessionist state, lest the feds make things difficult for them in all the others. And, unless the secession is so widespread that more states are out than in (a highly unlikely scenario), the corporations will comply. Would such a threat cut the legs out from under a secessionist state and force it to come crawling back to the Union? I think not, for several reasons.
First, a seceding state would already be working toward self-sufficiency in a great many areas and have developed trading links with other nations for those goods and services it could not provide for locally. Such self-sufficiency would have to be carefully planned for and be seen generally as workable and desirable, but, if the secessionist movement did its homework and selling right, it could make local development out to be a deeply patriotic, and possibly profitable, act. Like Japan historically, and a number of other states more recently, a seceding state would adopt a tactic that Jane Jacobs has called “import replacement”—the building of bicycles at home, recycling the metals and materials from the dumps and by the wayside, instead of buying them from abroad. It would certainly not be able to offer bikes for sale as cheaply as Wal-Mart does, at least at first, but it would put many more people to work per bike and strengthen its economy in ways that would eventually enable its people to buy the more expensive product. Imagine this going on for a host of other goods across the state, replacing those that can be made by intelligent recycling and manufacturing; refitting and reusing others; developing handicrafts as a substitute for machinery to create others; refusing to make those that are pointless, wasteful, environmentally harmful, or costly; and foregoing many that turn out, after a while, to be unnecessary or undesirable. Wal-Mart not only wouldn’t be missed but would, upon reflection, be seen as having been a foolish enterprise that foisted too much needless “stuff,” in too many useless varieties, of too shoddy a manufacture, with too many added-in transportation costs, on a gullible and malleable public. Those citizens who really missed the big chain stores would stoically bear that burden as good and loyal patriots.
A second reason that the economic threat would not have much force is that the new state might well start out with more money in its coffers because it would not have to pay federal income, gasoline, telephone, and other taxes; 17 states (12 of them “blue,” interestingly enough) now pay more to the federal government than they get back in federal benefits. California got back just 78 cents in benefits for every dollar she sent to Washington in 2003 (according to the Tax Foundation) and, as the independent Republic of California, would thereby have an extra 22 cents in her pocket for every dollar. That would have meant, in 2004, that the citizens would have kept $88 million that could have been used for local projects.
Of course, not every state is California, and the attempt at some sort of economic independence would work out differently in different places. If a state could not survive on its own economically, it would be very foolish for its people to launch a secessionist movement. A great many states could be economically viable on their own, however, by establishing trade with outside nations, including the United States and Canada. The necessity of economic survival is a very fertile mother, and, like many small nations, an independent state could find ways of making itself useful in the economic world; indeed, some of the richest nations—Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Cayman Islands, Iceland, Belgium, San Marino, and Singapore—are among the smallest (and that is leaving aside the Persian Gulf oil states).
The last reason for being optimistic about small-state viability and the nullity of the Wal-Mart strategy has to be viewed in the context of the economic future of the United States. I happen to be among the growing band of people who believe that extremely difficult times lie ahead—in the nearer rather than further future—as a combination of crises and calamities pushes us to a completely new kind of society. They include the dwindling of cheap oil supplies (which already seems to have begun) and skyrocketing gasoline prices; the collapse of the value of the dollar from the spiraling trade deficit and national debt; the bursting of the real-estate bubble; the effect of global warming on agriculture and fisheries; the rise of sea levels; the spread of diseases old and new; the increase in severe weather (of which Katrina is a foretaste); the diminution of fresh water; the exhaustion of tropical forests; the erosion of arable soils; the continued pollution of air and water; the depletion of mineral resources; and the whole impact of human activity on the global environment.
As a result of all that—or, indeed, of any of several parts of that—the national economy will have to transform itself. What follows will, in fact, be less a national than a local economy, particularly as gasoline supplies diminish and become prohibitively expensive and the dollar becomes an increasingly irrelevant measure of worth. James Howard Kunstler, whose new book, The Long Emergency, demonstrates the likelihood of just such a future, writes that it will require us to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food to the way we work and trade the products of our work. . . . Anything organized on the large scale, whether it is government or a corporate business enterprise such as Wal-Mart, will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall away.
And then a small, independent state, which can be more or less buffered from the national emergency and dependent on a relatively self-sufficient economy, makes a lot of sense.
That might be the best argument for secession. If the future is going to be anything like what we alarmists are saying, there would seem to be a need to establish small-scale institutions and enterprises and trading circles as soon as possible, along with revivified community enterprises and cottage craftsmanship, and a statewide level suggests itself as the appropriate scale. And if that can be done in connection with political and cultural independence, such economic independence makes a powerful and attractive package—even, perhaps, a necessary one.
This country simply is not working right—as both the war in Iraq and the bumbling of Katrina (at all levels) make clear—and its corruption and inefficiency are harmful to the bulk of the population. The federal government, aside from being bureaucracy bound and politically hamstrung, is too big and complicated and inherently incompetent, and its attempt to provide for 280 million people and maintain a global empire of 725 military bases has proved to be impossible, placing terrible political and financial burdens on everyone. Secession would allow states to escape this Leviathan, keep their human and financial resources from going down the rathole, avoid association with the failed politics of an ugly empire, and set their own policies (on same-sex “marriage,” abortion, stem-cell research, etc.) without interference from a distant central government increasingly in the hands of corporate interests and neoconservative ideologues. It would allow a blue state a chance to escape from the policies and culture of a red-state government and set its own course. It would, in short, allow people to leave the country they dislike without leaving the homes they cherish. What could make more sense?
Originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of Chronicles magazine.